THE SPIRIT OF THE OFFENSIVE
By Lieutenant Commander H.H. Frost, U.S. Navy
I. The Spirit of the Offensive and Offensive Operations
When Napoleon was asked how one might become a great captain, he said: "Wage offensive war like Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Turenne, the Prince Eugene, and Frederick."
All these commanders were imbued with the spirit of the offensive, but only one of them—Alexander—always acted absolutely on the offensive at all times, that is, always advanced and attacked with his full force without the slightest delay. All the others upon occasion were forced to limit their operations on account of unfavorable conditions over which they had no control. This was particularly so in the cases of Hannibal and Frederick; these generals in their later campaigns were forced to discontinue those bold and daring offensives which followed each other in such close succession during their first campaigns. However, it is undoubtedly a fact that these great leaders showed as great a talent and as great a spirit of the offensive in these later campaigns as they did in the most brilliant marches and battles of their earlier careers. Considering the great inferiority in numbers, the decrease in the quality of their troops through exhaustion and losses, and the generally unfavorable political conditions which both these leaders had to contend with in their later campaigns, it is believed that both of them acted with as great boldness and daring as in their first operations, when picked troops were available, when their enemies were comparatively unskilled in war, and when the political situations were much more favorable.
Napoleon himself in his later campaigns was compelled to limit his offensive operations, due to the small numbers and inferior quality of his troops, but even so when fighting in the immediate vicinity of his capital, and when all his marshals had given up hope, he acted with a superb spirit of the offensive unequalled in any of his triumphant marches into Rome, Vienna, Berlin, and Madrid.
Alexander excepted, there are only two other leaders of long and varied experience who never limited to any degree their offensive operations. These are Suvorof and Nelson, All other leaders have deemed it necessary to do so at times. That this was not esteemed a fault by the Romans will be seen from Plutarch's opinion of Lucullus: "The most sagacious and experienced Roman commanders made it a chief commendation of Lucullus, that he conquered two great and potent kings by two most opposite ways, haste and delay. For he wore out the flourishing power of Mithridates by delay and time, and crushed that of Tigranes by haste; being one of the rare examples of generals who made use of delay for active achievement and speed for security."
The spirit of the offensive may and should be present at all times, either in absolute or limited offensive operations. The application of this spirit in war results in carefully considered employment of the maximum force available in persistent, active, rapidly conducted, and venturesome undertakings against the enemy for the accomplishment of missions, and the infliction of losses proportionate to our strength and the advantages and difficulties of the strategical or tactical situation with which we may be confronted.
In order to make use of this spirit of the offensive so as to decide the war in our favor in the shortest possible time, we must comply with three requirements:
- Build up a personnel filled with the spirit of the offensive.
- Develop an organization of such precision and mobility that this spirit may be effectively applied to it.
- Actually apply the spirit of the offensive to maximum effect on all occasions.
II. Methods of Building Up the Spirit of the Offensive
There are various methods of fulfilling the first requirement, that is, of building up a personnel filled with the spirit of the offensive:
- Having it inherent in our race.
- Having it instilled in a military or naval service by long tradition.
- Developing it in a service by persistent instruction,
- Encouraging officers to read and study military and naval history, so that the value of an offensive spirit will be demonstrated and inspiration can be derived from the exploits of great commanders.
- Appointing leaders who will inspire this spirit in their subordinates by their character and actions.
- Building it up by winning victories over the enemy, so as to prove to our personnel that we have the ascendency over him.
III. Inherent Military Spirit
In the past certain nations and races have been inherently bold and venturesome. In most of these cases fighting was the sole business of the nation or race and these people naturally became inspired with a wonderful fighting spirit, or the sacred fire, as Napoleon was wont to call it.
Sparta was such a nation; though its people were of the same race as the rest of the Greeks, they were pre-eminent in bravery, boldness, and love of warfare. This was due to the remarkable code of laws enforced by Lycurgus, who made their daily training and preparation for war so arduous that actual warfare was welcomed as a relaxation. One of their laws prohibited the use of any fortifications, thus making it imperative that the war be carried into the territory of the enemy. As a result of this policy no invader set foot on Spartan territory for a period of six hundred years.
The Norsemen were, perhaps, even more aggressive and venturesome than the Spartans, for they went greater distances from their homes and generally in smaller numbers. The stories of their boldness and heroism are almost incredible. Their chief warriors were called "Berserks" because they refused to use coats of mail and went into battle stripped to the waist. In many bands it was a set rule that wounds received in battle could not be bandaged until the next day.
Civilization has so altered the life of nations that none are now organized, as were the Spartans and the Norsemen, solely for the purpose of warfare.
Conan Doyle's hero of the Napoleonic Wars, Brigadier Gerard, was wont to say that "all soldiers were equally brave, but that the French were slightly the bravest." The peoples of all the great nations today doubtless all hold the same opinion, but it can be said with certainty that our people are surpassed by those of no other nation for boldness, aggressiveness, originality, and initiative in their everyday life. Though we are not a military nation and have made little attempt to keep up our military and naval tradition, the recent war has proved that our people were splendid fighters when once brought into contact with the enemy. It may then be concluded that the material available for service in the army and navy has an inherent spirit of the offensive, and that very little will have to be done after its absorption into the service to complete the development of a most aggressive fighting spirit. What we must guard against particularly is a decrease of this spirit due to exhaustion in war and due to the principle of self-preservation, to which most men are subject, and which so limits and hampers all offensive action.
IV. The Effect of Tradition
When a nation is not composed solely of fighting men, an officers' corps or special body of troops may be developed with such a splendid tradition that new officers and men entering the organization will automatically become imbued with the fighting spirit which animates it.
The Thaban Sacred Band is an example of such a special body of troops. It was composed of only three hundred young men, but all of these were specially selected and all were attached to each other by personal affection. These were the first troops which defeated the Spartans in the open field and they performed remarkable feats of valor in all the battles of Pelopidas and Epaminondas. Until the Battle of Chaeronea they were never defeated. It was the only defeat they ever suffered. Philip of Macedon, walking over the battlefield, wept when he saw the bodies of the entire three hundred lying in one spot just as they had fallen before his phalanx, and said: "Perish any man who suspects that these men either did or suffered anything that was base."
The Germans were generally very unsuccessful and erratic in warfare until Frederick the Great built up an army tradition and established an officers' corps which was perpetuated from father to son down to the World War. Field Marshal von Hindenburg describes the effects of this tradition as follows: "The historic fame of any military body is a bond of unity between all its members, a kind of cement which holds it together even in the worst of times. It gives place to an indestructible something which retains its power even when, as in the last great war, the regiment has practically had to be reconstituted time after time. The old spirit very soon permeates the newcomers." The Baireuth Dragoon Regiment, which distinguished itself during the Roumanian campaign of 1916, then still wore on its cartridge boxes the number "67," denoting the number of standards taken by the regiment in the great cavalry charge at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg.
The English are generally credited with being a commercial, and not a warlike nation, but nevertheless their naval and military services have been noted for their warlike spirit. The Royal Navy in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries beat down the Spaniards, Dutch, and French in a wonderful series of successes; during this long period their officer corps was animated by a remarkable spirit of the offensive, which was transmitted on by tradition from one war to the next.
The Samurai in Japan were a military clan greatly noted for their daring and high spirit. Nitobe thus describes an incident which well illustrates their noble courage: "It passes current among us as a piece of authentic history, that as Ota Dokan, the great builder of the castle of Tokyo, was pierced through with a spear, his assassin, knowing the poetical predilection of his victim, accompanied his thrust with the couplet—
Ah! how in moments like these
Our heart doth grudge the light of life;
whereupon the expiring hero, not one whit daunted by the mortal wound in his side, added the lines—
Had not in hours of peace,
It learned to lightly look on life."
It was the repetition of such stories as these to the Japanese youth, together with other military instruction, which made the Japanese so careless of life and so fearless of death in the Russian
Our own navy has been blessed with a history and tradition unequalled by any. Although there have been some attempts, we have not made use of this splendid tradition as we should have for the instruction of our personnel. Nevertheless, the spirit of the offensive has always been alive in our service, and, although little opportunity was afforded for us in the World War to show this spirit in action, it is certain that had such opportunities been presented, our commanders at sea and in European waters would have made the most of them. It should be a matter of universal regret that the projected attack on Cattaro, or some other undertaking of equal difficulty, could not have been carried out by our naval forces. We have now to go back sixty years to the time of Farragut to find an example of such an operation, and no price would have been too dear for us to pay in order to demonstrate to our own personnel and to the other nations that we are still animated with the spirit of our greatest admiral.
V. Instruction and Indoctrination
In a number, of cases the spirit of the offensive has been developed in a service by persistent instruction and indoctrination, even though that service may have had little or no history or tradition. It was in this way that Frederick William the First built up the wonderful army that he turned over to Frederick. Up to his time the Prussians had little or no reputation for fighting. In fact, during the Thirty Years' War, the Elector of Brandenburg had been forced to allow Gustavus to march through his country, saying to his councilors in despair, "Que faire; ils ont des canons" (What do; they have the cannon). Frederick William, with the aid of old Prince Leopold of Dessau, trained the Prussian Army for twenty years, but during this time they had scarcely been under fire. It was with this army, entirely without war experience, that Frederick won his victories over the veteran Austrian and French troops. The Prince de Eigne, an Austrian officer, thus describes the attack of Schwerin's infantry in the first engagement of the war: "I never saw anything in my life more beautiful. They marched with the greatest steadiness, arrow-straight, and their front was like a line, as if they had been upon parade. The glitter of their arms shone strangely in the setting sun, and the fire from them went out no otherwise than a continued peal of thunder."
Beginning about 1890, the entire French military doctrine was changed from one in which the defense predominated to the old Napoleonic spirit of the offensive, the sacred fire, as he called it. Marshal Foch, then an instructor at the French War College, played an important part in this change ; his longing for the offensive and his fighting spirit is illustrated by a story told of him by Repington in September, 1918: "I heard that when Balfour asked Foch what he meant to do, the Generalissimo spoke no word, but threw himself into a fighting attitude, hit out hard with his right fist, then hit hard with his left, and then gave the coup de savate with his right and left leg in turn. It is quite like him!"
It is true that Suvorof's soldiers were to a great extent schooled in war against the Turks, but nevertheless their peace training had much to do with their remarkable successes. Their general's fiery doctrine is illustrated by the following extracts from his Oral Instructions for Training:
"Keep a bullet for three days, sometimes for a whole campaign, when there's no need to use it. Shoot rarely, and when you do, aim; with the bayonet, strike hard; the bullet misses, the bayonet doesn't miss; the bullet's a fool, and bayonet's a fine lad.
"Attack. Leg supports leg, arm strengthens arm; many die in the volley; the enemy has the same weapons, but he doesn't know the Russian bayonet. Extend the line—attack at once with the cold steel; extend the line without stopping, the Cossacks to get through everywhere. In two lines is strength; in three half as much again; the first breaks, the second drives into heaps, the third overthrows.
"Strike once—throw the pagan from your bayonet; dead on your bayonet, one strikes at your head with his sword. Sword at your neck—jump back a pace, hit again, strike another, strike a third; a champion will kill half a dozen, and I have seen more. Keep your bullet in your musket; three leap at you—knock down the first, shoot the second, kill the third with your bayonet."
In our service, instruction in the advantages of the application of the offensive spirit may be given in two ways:
- In the course of instruction at the War College and through the various papers issued by the War College.
- In the official instructions for the conduct of war.
At the War College it should be remembered in tactical games and chart maneuvers that the moral effect, so important in war, is not present, and that the spirit of the offensive will always have a much greater effect in war than at the War College, although even there it will have its effect.
In all official instructions for the conduct of war the spirit of the offensive should permeate every paragraph. Activity, energy, initiative, speed should be everywhere encouraged, and instructions should be stated in positive, affirmative language, and not in negative prohibitions; phrases which might encourage excessive caution or inactivity should invariably be deleted.
VI. Military History
To become completely imbued with the spirit of the offensive and the military idea it is desirable to read and re-read military history, whose pages are more fascinating and interesting than any fiction could be.
It soon becomes a definite conclusion of the reader and student of military history that victory comes to him who, after carefully weighing the situation, is willing to run risks, and carries out his plans with energy and boldness.
But even more valuable is the inspiration which such reading has been able to give to great commanders. In order to show the sources of such military inspiration a few pictures will be presented.
The ten thousand Greeks were in the center of the Persian Empire; their Persian commander had been killed in battle; their own Greek commanders had been assassinated by the Persians; they were thousands of miles from home, and surrounded by innumerable enemies. In this situation only one man rose above the difficulties and dangers which threatened them. This man, Xenophon, an unknown adventurer, who had never before held a command, addressed them with the calm assurance of an experienced general. "You are certain," he said, "that it is neither numbers nor strength which gives the victory in war, but that whichever side advances on the enemy with the more resolute courage, their opponents, in general, cannot withstand their onset."
Read Plutarch's description of the Spartans advancing into battle: "When their army was drawn up in battle array and the enemy near, the king commanded the soldiers to set their garlands upon their heads, and the pipers to play the tune of the hymn to Castor, and himself began the paean of advance. It was at once a magnificent and terrible sight to see them march on to the tune of their flutes, without any disorder in their ranks, any discomposure in their minds or change in their countenance, calmly and cheerfully moving with the music to the deadly fight."
The Nervii enter history but once. They were all killed in one battle with Caesar's legions, but the conqueror tells us what kind of men they were: "But the enemy, even in the last hope of safety, displayed such great courage that when the foremost of them had fallen, the next stood upon them prostrate, and fought from their bodies; when these were overthrown, and their bodies heaped up together, those who survived cast their weapons thence, as from a mound, and returned our darts which had fallen between the armies."
We have only a few myths to tell us of the wonderful race of fighting men who lived in northern Scotland and Ireland during the first two centuries of the Christian era. The supposed poems of Ossian, which so inspired Suvorof and Napoleon, tell us of Cuchullin's last battle: "The chief of Erin overcame; he returned over the field with his fame. But pale he returned! The joy of his face was dark. He rolled his eyes in silence. The sword hung, unsheathed, in his hand, and his spear bent at every step. 'Carril,' said he in secret, 'the strength of Cuchullin fails. My days are with the years that are past: and no morning of mine shall arise. They shall seek me at Temora, but I shall not be found. Cormac shall weep in his hall, and say "Where is Tura's chief?" But my name is renowned; my fame is in the song of bards. The youth will say in secret, "O let me die as Cuchullin died; renown clothed him like a robe; and the light of his fame is great." Draw the arrow from my side; and lay Cuchullin beneath that oak. Place the shield of Caithbat near, that they may behold me amidst the arms of my fathers.'"
The Duke of Alva, after massacring every person in the little town of Naarden, which had absolutely no means of defense, paid a perfect tribute to its brave burghers in his report to the Spanish king: "It was a permission of God that these people should have undertaken to defend a city which was so weak that no other persons would have attempted such a thing."
Field Marshal Browne, an Irish soldier in the Austrian service, is little known to any of us; yet a little story of him, written by one of his officers, makes one of the beautiful pictures of history: "You saw the great man, how he sacrificed himself to this enterprise. What Austrian field marshal but himself would have ever lowered his loftiness to lead, in person, so insignificant a detachment, merely for the public good! Sharing with his troops all the hardships, none excepted, of those critical days; and in spite of a violent cough, which often brought the visible blood from his lungs, and had quite worn him down, exposing himself, like the meanest of the army, to the tempests of rainy weather. Think what a sight it was, going to your very heart, and summoning you to endurance of every hardship—that evening when the field marshal, worn out with his fatigues and his disorder, sank out of fainting-fits into a sleep! The ground was his bed, and the storm of clouds his coverlid. In crowds his brave war-comrades gathered round; stripped their cloaks, the coats, and strove in noble rivalry which of them should have the happiness to screen the Father of the Army at their own cost of exposure, and by any device to keep the pelting of the weather from that loved head!"
At the Battle of Prag, Field Marshal Schwerin, seventy years old, seeing his own regiment in retreat, seized the colors and led them back to the attack along a narrow causeway. "Five bits of grapeshot, deadly each of them, at once hit the old man; dead he sinks there on his flag; and will never fight more," (Carlyle). But his troops, mad with grief and rage, storm the position and win the battle.
The evening after the battle of Chancellorsville, General Lee wrote to Jackson a note which should be classed among the masterpieces of literature:
I have just received your note, informing me that you are wounded.
I cannot express my regret at the occurrence. Could I have directed events, I should have chosen for the good of the country to be disabled in your stead.
I congratulate you upon the victory, which is due to your skill and energy.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
R. E. Lee, General.
When this note was read to the wounded general, he said very quietly, "General Lee is very kind, but he should give the praise to God."
A few days after the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac, Lincoln was attending a cabinet meeting; during the meeting someone remarked that Lieutenant Worden, the commanding officer of the Monitor, was in the city, badly wounded. Without waiting for the end of the important meeting, the President arose, saying, "Excuse me, gentlemen, I must see this fellow." He went immediately to the house at which the wounded officer was being cared for. As Lincoln entered the room, Worden was lying on a sofa; his eyes were bandaged, and his face bruised and bloody as the result of the terrible wound he had received when a shell exploded against the armor of the conning tower within a foot of the slit through which he was looking.
As the President took his hand, the wounded hero said: "Mr. President, you do me great honor by this visit." "Sir," answered Mr. Lincoln, as the tears ran down his face, "I am the one who is honored in this interview."
During the World War there was no important action which was not illustrated by some acts of heroism which have fortunately been preserved for us. At Coronel, Cradock headed in with his flagship toward the German line in order to try to save the other British ships. The Monmouth refused to surrender even when the ship had such a list that none of her battery could be brought to bear, and went down with colors flying when sunk by the Nurnberg. The heroism of the Monmouth's captain was more remarkable in view of the fact that the sea was so rough that it was evident that should the ship go down it would not be possible to save a single man of the crew.
In the Battle of the Falkland Islands, Von Spee went down fighting his flagship with the utmost heroism, not a man on the Scharnhorst being saved. When the Gneisenau was sinking and all guns were silent, the captain sent an officer around the ship with orders to try to fire a few more rounds. It was found possible to load one gun which was pointed so high in the air that there was no possibility of making a hit with it; nevertheless, it was fired once, whereupon the British re-opened fire and soon sent the gallant Gneisenau down. The conduct of the Nurnberg and Leipzig was also perfect.
In the Heligoland Bight action the Mains and Kbln fought, entirely without support, a whole battle-cruiser squadron at short range. At the Dogger Bank the Blucher received the fire of all the British battle cruisers and was fought to the end.
At Jutland the British destroyers Nestor, Nicator, Nomad, Moorsom, Onslow, and Shark, with many others, fired torpedoes at enemy capital ships at almost point-blank range, in some cases when they were themselves sinking. A few dying men from the destroyer leader Tipperary, while floating on a Carley raft, were made known to their friends by the song, "It's a long way to Tipperary," which they were manfully singing.
On the German side the defense of the Wiesbaden and the superb gallantry with which Admiral Hipper led the battle cruisers will be remembered as long as history exists.
The British cruiser Warrior had been badly damaged in the day action, and the next morning was in a sinking condition. The captain of the seaplane carrier Engadine took his ship alongside in a very heavy sea, so that the ships pounded against each other badly. The men of the Warrior commenced to pass over to the Engadine. "At this moment," writes an officer of the Engadine, "the captain considered that there was too much haste, and he ordered the bugle 'Still' to be sounded. The result was wonderful. Not a single man passed from the Warrior to the Engadine after the bugle was sounded, but every man fell back from the ship's side against the funnel casing, just as they would have done if the bugle call had been sounded at drill. It was a wonderful sight; a triumph of organization, discipline, and courage combined."
On of the bravest things of the war was the attempt of a German submarine manned entirely by officers to enter Scapa Flow during the last months of the war. The submarine, of course, was blown up by a mine, and the exploit had no effect other than to demonstrate the fact that, even when the Germans had definitely lost the war, their officers knew how to die. This, after all, is by no means an unimportant result of such a small undertaking.
The blocking of Zeebrugge has fortunately been described in detail and has rightly won the admiration of the world. It is a distinct loss to our service that we were not permitted to make a similar attempt. Whether it would have succeeded or failed would have made no difference.
(To be continued)